Review of Gender and Violence in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives: an international conference held at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

By Mary Edwards (PhD Student, University College Cork, Ireland)

 

While violence is undoubtedly a powerful tool in the oppression of any group, the manifestation of violence is not always obvious. It is multifarious in nature and never more so than when it is used to oppress persons as a consequence of their gender. At the end September this year, Dr Jyoti Atwal (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and Dr Iris Fleßenkämper (University of Münster) organized an international conference on “Gender and Violence in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”. Participants at this event explored both obvious and incredibly subtle forms of gender violence. As I was awarded a 2015 Ailsa McKay Travel Grant (a bursary available to PhD student members of the FWSA who require support to attend a conference), which alleviated my flight costs, I was fortunate enough to travel to Jawaharlal Nehru University to participate in this event. In what follows I provide a brief overview of the themes and issues addressed.

The religious or ideological sanctioning of violence against women has a long history. Dr R. Mahalakshimi (Jawaharlal Nehru University) exposed how patriarchal norms are affirmed in the Periya Puranam, via its presentation of violence against women as the expression of “devotional zeal.” The beliefs that furnished the (now illegal) ritual of Sati – the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre or suicide shortly after his death – were explored, along with their continued relevance to gender studies today by Dr Jyoti Atwal (Jawaharlal Nehru University). Professor Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt (University of Marburg) critically analysed representations of historically “permissible” forms of violence in Indian culture (including female infanticide and foeticide, childhood and “holy” prostitution, rape, and “honour” killing) in Bollywood films and questioned the solutions they offer for this problem. Dr Deepra Dandekar (University of Heidelberg) spoke on “Muslim Personal Land and the Islamic Feminist Challenge in South Asia” and identified some of the challenges faced by Muslim Feminist movements in their efforts to reconcile their political agendas with their religious practice today.

Shame was exposed to not only play a vital role in the coercion of women into accepting physical violence, and even engaging in practices like Sati, the feeling of shame itself, as experienced by persons of any “despised” gender, indicates the presence of psychological violence. Just as a physical injury weakens the body, shame undermines the integrity of the person as well as making them more likely to resign themselves to their maltreatment in a society that labels them “inferior.” Manju Ludwig (University of Heidelberg) investigated the stigma and shame associated with “deviant” male sexualities in colonial India. Dr Renate Syed (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) highlighted a 2500-year history of discrimination against Hijras (persons considered to belong to the “third gender”) in India. Finally, the idea that shame could be interpreted as “manifest” in the physically weaker female body was explored by Dr Susmita Dasgupta (Independent Scholar), in relation to recent violent assaults on women and, in particular, to the brutal case of the rape and murder of Nirbhaya by five men in 2012.

Belonging to both a despised gender and a minority group was exposed as a dangerous combination since, when two different species of discrimination come together and reinforce one another, this can generate highly complex violent structures. Professor Nilika Mehrotra (Jawaharlal Nehru University) presented “Violence Against Women with Disabilities: Ethnographic Reflections”. Professor Vivek Kumar (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and Dr Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi) attempted to unpick the structures of violence faced by Dalit (low caste) and Adiavasi (tribal) women, respectively. The unfortunate “overdetermination” of violence in cases such as these often has the double-consequence of presenting violence as destiny to the victim and rendering the structure of this violence extremely difficult to unpick for those who aim to help them. Dr Moira Dustin (Equality and Diversity Research Network, Brighton) spoke about this difficulty in the context of the development strategies to prevent violence against minoritised women in the UK, within broader policy agendas. Specifically, Dustin called attention to problematic practice of lumping various acts of violence against female minorities in the UK under the umbrella of “honour crime”, despite a wealth of evidence showing that instances of honour killing, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, for example, each have unique structures and require different strategies to counter them. The danger of the “honour killing umbrella” was also picked up by Professor Bhagwan Josh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), in his presentation on “Marriage and Violence among the Punjabi Immigrants in Canada”. Josh argued that, despite the public perception, so-called “honour killing” is not the only form of violence perpetuated against Indian women and he examined two other forms: the spousal murder of women in migrant communities and the related phenomena of “deserted brides”. Though these forms of violence may have some connection to the notion of “female honour,” they are by no means reducible it.

This point was reaffirmed by Professor Anuradha Banerjee’s presentation on “Women Home Makers: Causes and Consequences of Domestic Violence among Married Women in India”. One in five married women in India suffers physical abuse at the hands of their husband and Banerjee’s focus was to reveal the trends and patterns associated with this statistic. Unsurprisingly, women with “least education and poor family background” are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. More alarming, however, is the finding that “women who enjoy more autonomy (financial, mobility and decision-making)” are also more likely to be abused. Banerjee connects these findings to the refusal of some male members of society to “accept women as their equal counterparts” and highlighted the importance of men’s role in the prevention of violence against women.

The colonization of India gave rise to new, nuanced forms of gender violence. Dr Bodh Prakash (University of Delhi) in a paper titled “Gender, Violence, and Resistance in Partition Narratives” relayed narratives of women who had, by various means, come into contact with “the enemy” during the riots preceding the Partition of India in 1947. The narratives of these female survivors reveal how, after the riots ended, they were either rejected or treated as “impure” by their families. This constituted a further violence done unto them, as they were denied their right to heal from the previous violence. Dr Judith Becker (Institute for European History, Mainz) used the example of the Basel Mission in South India to demonstrate how certain gendered norms were imposed upon the native people of India from without and how, in certain cases, religion was (mis)used in order to excuse acts of violence inflicted on the native people by the Missionaries. Dr Felicity Jensz (University of Münster) focused on the way colonial subjects were represented in publications made by German Missionaries during the 19th century. In particular, Jensz highlighted the portrayal of the “helpless brown woman” in need of rescue by the “white man” and argued that the “self-assumed ability” of missionaries to speak on the behalf Indian women was an act of epistemic violence.

Dr Iris FleĂźenkämper (University of MĂĽnster) and I both spoke about different forms of intimate partner violence. FleĂźenkämper considered the uncommon (or certainly less documented) case of a wife physically abusing her husband through an analysis of a divorce case brought before the marriage court of the Protestant County of Lippein in 1682. FleĂźenkämper challenged the assumption often made by historians that violence is “a man’s business” whilst also constructing a profile of a wife who felt driven toward violence. My paper discussed the problematic representation of intimate partner violence in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and argued that, though a work of fiction, this book has the potential to harm real women if its readers uncritically incorporate certain beliefs (that are required for engagement with this text) into their real-world belief systems. Both these presentations, in different ways, suggest that the alleged “ownership” of physical violence by persons of a discriminated gender, rather than “empowering” them, may merely be symptomatic of their embeddedness in an already violent system. The fact that gender-based violence can be systematic, all-pervasive, and presented as a means to independence was highlighted by Dr Christa Wichterich (University of Kassel) in her paper on “Gender-Based Violence of Economic Globalization in Contemporary India: An Intersectional Approach to Gender and Violence.” Here, Wichterich traced the large-scale exploitation of women in the industrial sector in India, she examined; how they have been enticed into providing cheap labour for fabric companies, targeted by high-interest loan-sharks, used and manipulated by the growing surrogacy trade today.

Nasrine Gross (founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights in Kabul) shared some of her experience from working in her education Center that specializes in teaching couples literacy classes. Gross spoke in detail about the horror and violence women face everyday in Afghanistan and she asked: how can people be motivated to escape the violence that surrounds them if they do not even recognize their situation as unjust? Gross’s proposed solution to this question is: education. Education provides people with the tools to identify violence as violence, to recognise it as unjust, and to imagine circumstances in which things are different. Gross’s insight on this matter bears upon the issue of gender violence generally.

If there is to be hope of ending gender violence, it will not do to attend only to its most obvious presentations; when its victims are hospitalized, beaten, violated, septic as a result of hack “circumcisions”, or dead, it is too late. We can inoculate against diseases that are invisible to the naked eye and far less selective in their victims, why do we still fail to protect so many victims of this social disease? Since ignorance blinds us to its movements, better education is required as a first step toward safeguarding potential victims, before it is too late. Of course, major governmental investments and more resources in local communities are urgently needed to address this global issue but, as it is imperative to know what to do with funding and resources (as Dustin’s paper illustrated so well), education must necessarily come first. Gender and Violence in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives illuminated many discrete and subtle forms of gender violence, brought others into higher resolution, and indicated where more research is needed. I felt truly honoured to be part of this important event and it is my deepest wish that the research showcased here continues to progress; toward identifying and determining how best to prevent all forms gender violence.